Mahanta Thakur was a top Nepali Congress (NC) leader before he formed his own Tarai-Madhes Loktrantrik Party in 2007, immediately after the first Madhesi Movement. Had he not left the NC, Thakur was the most likely candidate for the country’s president from the party. Instead, the nomination and the post went to Ram Baran Yadav, another Congress stalwart. Thakur is a firm believer in parliamentary democracy.
In 1996 Baburam Bhattarai was already the second-in-command and the party’s chief ideologue when the Maoists launched their insurgency. But he severed ties with the mother Maoist party in 2015, following the promulgation of the new national charter, and formed his own party, Naya Shakti Nepal. The new party embraced socialist and progressive agendas.
Upendra Yadav was a school teacher before becoming a revolutionary Maoist and the champion of the Madhesi cause. His burning in 2007 of the interim constitution led to his arrest, catapulting him into national politics. In the first Constituent Assembly election, his new party, Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, emerged as the largest Madhes-based outfit. Yadav is most comfortable working with left parties.
Rajendra Mahato, a seasoned Madhesi leader, was once associated with the Nepal Sadbhawana Party. This party was active in Madhesi politics after the 1990 changes, but has since merged with Rastriya Janata Party Nepal. Ideologically, he is close to ‘democratic’, as opposed to ‘progressive’, forces.
Mahendra Raya Yadav comes from the CPN-UML, and joined various Madhes-based parties after the 2006 political changes. Likewise, Ashok Rai was UML vice-chair before he formed his own Sanghiya Samajbadi Party. In 2015, he merged his party with Upendra Yadav’s Madhesi Janadhikar Forum. But the senior Janajati leader has failed to get much support from Janajati groups.
All these leaders from diverse backgrounds are now collectively under the umbrella of the new Janata Samajbadi Party-Nepal (JSPN). In the federal lower house, it is the third largest party after the Nepal Communist Party and the NC, and projects itself as an alternative political force.
The new party also includes leaders such as Sarad Singh Bhandari (from NC), and Anil Kumar Jha and Raj Kishor Yadav (various Madhes-based parties). There are also some junior leaders in the JSPN who started their politics during the party-less Panchayat system. The new party is thus a curious mixture of ethnicities, ideologies, and classes.
Merger star aligns
What prompted them to come together? According to Madhes watchers, the unification had been in the cards for a while. It got the final push on April 20, when Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli brought a new ordinance to make it easier to divide political parties; doing so with the express purpose of splitting Madhesi parties and strengthening his two-thirds lower house majority.
Oli’s strategy was to split the big Madhes-based parties and use CK Raut—the leader of a secessionist movement in Madhes that Oli helped bring to national mainstream—to improve his position in Madhes. To forestall this, Samajbadi Party and Janata Party, with 17 and 16 seats in the federal lower house respectively, announced their merger on April 22. Otherwise a section of the Samajabadi Party was all set to join the Oli government after registering a separate party under new rules.
The Madhesi forces faced an ‘existential crisis’. Mainly after the unification of the CPN-UML with the CPN (Maoist Center), the Madhesi outfits feared being permanently shut out of power. In the past, even fringe Madhesi parties had played kingmakers, making and breaking governments in Kathmandu. But with the consolidated communist party at the helm and changes in political party rules, that was no longer an option.
According to new legal provisions, in a national election, a party has to cross the threshold of three percent overall valid votes under the Proportional Representation category and get at least one seat under the First-Past-the-Post category. Only then it is recognized as a national party. This explains why there were only four national parties after the 2017 elections, while eight national parties and over two-dozen others had emerged after the 2013 CA elections. The new provisions forced smaller parties to consolidate.
The utter dominance of the NCP in national politics made these proponents of identity politics band together. With the local elections just two years away, they didn’t have much time to lose.
Ideological differentiation is an important concern for political parties. What is the core ideology of the JSPN with its diverse cast of characters then? Party leaders say its ideology of ‘advanced democratic socialism’ sets the JSPN apart from other political outfits.
“BP Koirala embraced democratic socialism, mainly focusing on economic equality and individual freedom. Our party professes ‘advanced democratic socialism’ by incorporating new issues such as the end of social, cultural and caste discriminations, and the consolidation of federal and republican orders,” says party leader Keshav Jha. He also states that the new party is in favor of inclusive and participatory democracy.
But Madhes watchers reckon the new party’s ideology is still unclear. According to Rajesh Ahiraj, “The JSPN has leaders who served the NC, the CPN-UML, the Madhes-based parties as well as the Panchayat regime. Carving out a clear ideology is thus difficult for it”. But lack of clarity could also be to the party’s benefit, adds Ahiraj, as it could forestall a split along ideological lines.
According to another analyst of Madhesi politics, Tula Narayan Shah, there are currently three major currents in national politics. Some parties focus on nationalism, some focus more on development, while still others focus on identity politics. “The new party’s major plank is identity-based politics,” Shah says.
Meanwhile, the JSPN’s Raj Kishore Yadav says that with the formation of a strong alternative force, Kathmandu will be under greater pressure to heed the Madhesi voices, including the crucial issue of the constitution amendment. “The NCP and NC are traditional forces. We are a new, alternative political force that stands for inclusive and participatory democracy,” says Yadav.
Management of party leaders from center to grassroots is also problematic. Plus, the old personality clashes in Madhes-based parties could resurface.
“Our primary focus now is settlement of internal organizational issues. We have to amalgamate the various organizations affiliated with separate parties pre-unification,” says Raj Kishor Yadav.
When six Madhes-based parties united in 2017 to form the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal, there was a huge problem with managing all the new leaders. So the party adopted the presidium system, where six leaders served as presidents on a rotational basis. “In order to adjust all top leaders who now fall under the JSPN rubric, we will continue to follow the principle of collective leadership,” says Yadav.
During the JSPN’s registration, Mahantha Thakur and Upendra Yadav were named party chairs, while Baburam Bhattarai, Ashok Rai and Rajendra Mahato were declared senior leaders. “In a top-heavy party like the JSPN, there are bound to be personality clashes. In fact, that would be JSPN’s biggest challenge going ahead,” says writer Pranab Kharel, a sociologist and a close follower of Madhesi politics.
Another vital issue is the constituency of the new party. A combination of two largely Madhes-based parties, the JSPN’s base will continue to be Madhes. As it is, the new outfit commands over 50 percent local governments in Tarai-Madhes. But the party also incorporates many powerful leaders from the hills.
The JSPN is projecting itself as a national party. But analysts say while there is a chance of it holding on to its Madhes base, it will have a tough time expanding in hill areas and in Kathmandu.
“It will struggle to attract the hill’s Janajati constituency. Nor will the Khas-Arya folks support it easily,” says political analyst Shah. He fears that in due course hill leaders like Baburam Bhattarai and Ashok Rai could come to dominate the JSPN. In that case, the party could face an identity crisis.
Yet the party has started consolidating the Janajati constituency and plans on a big alliance of identity-based political forces. According to leaders from the two merging parties, the next national movement will be launched under the banner of ‘Rastriya Mukti Andolan’, with the goal of accommodating Janajati and other forces that feel betrayed by the 2015 constitution.
Can’t go national
Analyst Ahiraj suggests the party will struggle even in Madhes. “The new party cannot win support in Madhes as it is no longer a Madhes-based party, nor does it carry Madhesi ideology,” he says. According to Ahiraj, the NC, whose traditional vote bank is Madhes, could gain from the ideological muddle in the JSPN.
Political analyst and Madhesi intellectual Chandra Kishore echoes Ahiraj. He says there is a feeling among grassroots level Madhesi cadres that Madhesi leaders are gradually abandoning their base in the name of forming a national party. There are other problems too. “During its formation, the party has not been inclusive. There is no representation of Madhesi Dalits, and the Tharu community has been ignored,” says Kishore.
Analyst Shah, however, believes the party will do well in Madhes even though he is not so sure about its prospects in the hills and in Kathmandu. Baburam Bhattarai, Ashok Rai and Rajendra Shrestha who represent the JSPN’s non-Madhesi faces all struggled in the 2017 national elections. For instance, Bhattarai won the election from Gorkha only because of his alliance with the Nepali Congress. The other two lost, as they struggled to get the Janajati support.
The Madhesi leaders will also struggle to increase their appeal in hilly and mountain regions as well as in Kathmandu Valley. According to experts, the 2007 Madhes movement created a gulf between Madhesi and Pahadi communities in Madhes—a gulf which is yet to be breached. According to Shah, Madhesi population more easily accepts Pahadi leaders rather than the other way around. For instance, Baburam Bhattarai and Ashok Rai are somehow accepted in Madhes but other Madhesi leaders are not as easily accepted in the hills.
According to Shah, problems will crop up even within the party. “In intra-party elections, leaders and cadres from hill constituencies are unlikely to vote for Madhesi leaders,” he says. Sociologist Kharel adds, “Their tactical alliance to establish identity-based politics notwithstanding, there has never been cordial relations between Madhesi and Janajati constituencies.”
Brief History of Madhes-based parties
Bedananda Jha established the first Madhes-based party, the Tarai Congress, in 1951 after breaking away from the Nepali Congress. Nepal Sadbhawana Party, formed in 1985, represented Madhes in the post-1990 dispensation. Between 1990 and 2006, the NSP itself would repeatedly split and coalesce into new parties. But it was only in the aftermath of the 2006 political changes that the Madhesi parties started playing a decisive role in national politics.
A group of Madhesi activists led by Upendra Yadav launched the first Madhesi movement following the promulgation of the interim constitution in 2007, after federalism had found no place in the interim charter. Yadav emerged as the undisputed Madhesi leader and registered the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum Nepal (MJF).
Later, Nepali Congress leader Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar and Sarad Singh Bhandari joined the Upendra-Yadav led MJF just before the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2008. At the same time, senior NC leader Mahanta Thakur, Sadbhawana leader Hridayesh Tripathi, UML’s Mahendra Raya Yadav, and Ram Chandra Raya of Rastriya Prajatantra Party formed Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party.
Gachhadar split from the MJF to join the Madhav Kumar Nepal-led government. After some time, Sarad Singh Bhandari and JP Gupta also formed separate parties.
Just before the 2017 national elections, six Madhes-based parties announced their unification, all merging into the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal. Similarly, the Upendra Yadav-led party united with Ashok Rai-led Sanghiya Samajbadi to form Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum Nepal. Later there was unification between Samajbadi and Naya Shakti Nepal under Baburam Bhattarai. Now, the Janata Samajbadi Party Nepal has been formed after the merger of the Samajbadi Party and the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal.